Despite gestures, bipartisanship remains elusive
By Ben Pershing
Can Republicans and Democrats work together on anything important? Tuesday's picture was decidedly mixed: At a surprise press conference, President Obama called for bipartisanship, but also gave some stern warnings to Republicans. At a meeting of party leaders beforehand, Republicans and Democrats both called for bipartisanship, but couldn't agree on anything. And in the Senate, the two sides tried to cut a deal on a jobs bill, but couldn't get it done before the latest snowstorm blew into town.
"President Obama appealed for bipartisanship from the podium of the White House briefing room today, calling on Democrats and Republicans to 'put aside matters of party,' while condemning the 'obstinacy' that he says is rooted in 'political expedience,'" ABC News reports. Though Obama joked about Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell "making snow angels" on the White House lawn, the New York Times says "his laughter gave way to a forceful message, saying that bipartisanship was a two-way street and neither side - including Democrats - could get their way. He said there needed to be at least some cooperation, but he offered no specific path for the legislative way forward." Time sees the appearance as part of "a delicate strategy that calls for Obama to reposition himself as a bipartisan outsider fighting to change Washington even as his aides increasingly play the sharply partisan inside game."
The Los Angeles Times observes that "politicians love these quick-hit confrontations with the press because the media have not had the usual days of prep time to phrase the toughest possible questions where the exits are hidden and dodging is difficult. So the politician has the element of surprise and offense. Obama even admitted the same, perhaps accidentally. His final words today: 'That was pretty good. Thanks.' Not the comment of someone just waterboarded." Dana Milbank says Obama, "in Henny Youngman style, compared the political opposition to the first lady." Jake Tapper wonders, "Is there even bipartisan agreement on what 'bipartisan' means?" Mark Knoller's headline: "Obama Says Bipartisanship, But What He Wants Is GOP Surrender."
Obama delivered a similarly mixed message during his meeting with congressional leaders. Roll Call writes that "Congressional leaders from both parties put on their happy faces after Tuesday's meeting at the White House, but nobody could point to any bipartisan progress made toward advancing Democrats' priority issues." The Washington Post says "the two-hour session was part of a renewed drive by the White House to create legislation by consensus, regardless of party label. Obama tried the approach after he took office, but it did not take hold."
And the common ground between the two sides has its limits -- Republicans may boycott Obama's proposed health summit, and Obama may recess appoint some executive branch nominees because he's tired of delays. "Obama said he warned the Congressional leaders face-to-face that he will use his power to unilaterally fill some empty positions if the logjam in the Senate cannot be broken," Politico writes. The New York Times says "Obama and Republican leaders, each eager to show they can put aside partisanship, agreed Wednesday that they had pinpointed a handful of areas -- most of them related to jobs creation -- where the two sides might be able to work together. But as if to punctuate that the talk of bipartisanship goes only so far, Senate Republicans subsequently voted to block Mr. Obama's choice of Craig Becker, a labor lawyer, for the National Labor Relations Board."
As for that jobs bill, the efforts at bipartisanship have been genuine, but there's no agreement yet. "Senate Democrats are pushing for approval this month of a job-creation bill that includes a payroll-tax holiday for companies that hire unemployed workers," Bloomberg writes, as "the plan announced yesterday by ... Reid would will give small businesses more power to write off investment costs, extend the Build America Bonds program that subsidizes interest payments on local government bonds and continue the federal highway construction program through year's end." Reid "backed off his push to begin floor debate on an $80 billion jobs bill" Tuesday night because of the snowstorm, Roll Call reports, adding that "members of both parties [were] balking at taking up a bill sight unseen" and "Republican members of the Finance Committee expressed lingering reservations with the deal, and Republicans said they were generally uncomfortable with Reid's timeline." Politico reports "several key Democrats say there is no deal" on the bill yet, and in a separate story, notes that Nancy Pelosi dislikes the bill's centerpiece job-creation tax credit.
The Los Angeles Times cautions, "How long even symbolic gestures of bipartisanship would last was unclear. The parties are still approaching each other warily. ... Still, even an approach to seeking common ground was notable, especially in the Senate, where Republicans had appeared to be reveling in their newfound power to undermine Democratic initiatives." The Wall Street Journal takes a broader ook at the gridlock: "The Senate's plodding pace has always distressed those in Washington eager to get things done quickly. Now, with Democrats and Republicans stalemated on everything from major legislation to agency appointments, some are asking whether the institution is broken." The New York Times contributes a statistical profile of the House and Senate: "Congress now includes more women and Asians than ever, but it is considerably less diverse, older, better educated, more likely to have served in the military and not as likely to have been born abroad than Americans over all."
On the reform front, "Obama said Tuesday that he will consider any Republican health care ideas, as long as the ideas address the goals contained in the Democratic plans already passed by the House and Senate," USA Today reports. Democrats are still trying to figure out a way to get their bill passed without starting over. CongressDaily says "House Speaker Pelosi's top healthcare adviser today outlined a plan that would allow both chambers to make changes to the Senate healthcare overhaul before the overhaul becomes law. Wendell Primus said the plan is to have President Obama sign the Senate bill before signing the legislation making the changes, even though Congress will approve them in reverse to satisfy skeptical House members who refuse to pass the Senate bill before changes are made." The Hill is the latest outlet to take a shot at Rahm Emanuel's handling of health care, writing that "the emerging consensus among critics in both chambers is that Emanuel's lack of Senate experience slowed President Barack Obama's top domestic priority. The share of the blame comes as cracks are beginning to show in Emanuel's once-impregnable political armor."
The various efforts at bipartisanship come as the new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows "Republicans have significantly narrowed the gap with Democrats on who is trusted to deal with the country's problems and have sharply reduced several of President Obama's main political advantages." The survey showed the generic congressional ballot tied at 46 percent apiece, while Obama's approval rating was at 51 percent. For comparison, Gallup also has the generic ballot tied and puts Obama's approval at 50 percent, though other recent surveys give the president lower marks.
ABC News reports: "Disapproval of Congress, at 71 percent, matches its highest since 1994, when the GOP swept to control in a midterm rout of the Democrats. Americans by a 20-point margin say they're inclined to look around for someone new to support for Congress. And by a 13-point margin, 48 to 35 percent, Americans call themselves anti-incumbent rather than pro-incumbent - not quite the levels in 1994 or 2006 (when the Democrats regained control) but broad nonetheless." For her part, Pelosi "is literally laughing off the suggestion House Democrats could lose their majority in the midterm elections," Roll Call writes, as the Speaker tells the paper her party will "definitely" keep power in November.
February 10, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
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